The morals of most Dr. Seuss books—those that have morals—are usually pretty basic and uncontroversial and there’s not a lot to talk about there. I don’t mean this as a criticism—these morals are for five-year-olds. I just mean that I’m not going to write an essay about Yertle any more than I’m going to write an essay about Aesop.
But the Sneetches are different. “You can’t teach a Sneetch” (says Sylvester McMonkey McBean) but you can sure as heck learn from them.
(Major spoilers for a half-century-old children’s book.)
The Sneetches, in case you don’t remember, come in two varieties (classes? races?): Some with stars on their bellies and some without. The star-bellied Sneetches so-called have positioned themselves as an overclass, leaving the starless to slink about on the peripheries of the star-bellied picnics and badminton tournaments, etc.
The star-bellied Sneetches are the “best Sneetches on the beaches,” according to propaganda that all Sneetches believe. The criterion for merit, we are assured, is having a star on the belly.
Then Sylvester McMonkey McBean shows up, and builds a machine; for a slight fee, he can add a star to the bellies of the starless Sneetches. Soon the starless Sneetches have star on their bellies, and show up at a weenie roast, demanding entrance. After all, we’re all exactly the same now!
And what to the star-bellied Sneetches do? They change the criterion for merit. They “move the goal post.” They go off and get their own stars removed by Sylvester McMonkey McBean (for a fee), just so they can distinguish themselves from an underclass.
I read this as a child and never thought twice about it. In all the years since then, while I’ve occasionally tried to poke holes in different parts of Seuss’s book (the Sneetches’ economy makes no sense, for example), I never once thought, “Sneetches wouldn’t do that!” Because obviously people would do that. We all know, even as children we knew that people would do that. We just tend to forget it whenever it’s convenient to.
This has come up again and again in previous posts. What happens if you give Sneetches who can’t afford college degrees college degrees? College-bellied Sneetches will demand graduate degrees!What happens if those Sneetches learn to talk like us Sneetches? We’ll just have to learn a new way to talk! By the time your parents learn to say “gnarly” or “on fleek,” you will have already moved onto another set of dank memes.
We create taboos not because any of these arbitrary gymnastics actually matter, but because we need some way to see who has stars in their bellies and who doesn’t. As soon as one of them manages to perform the gymnastics, we’re just going to change the rules. I’m not saying that all the new taboo words, phrasings, and concepts we see are just people trying to shuffle norms around faster than an underclass can follow…but obviously a lot of them are.
Somehow we are all in denial about Sneetchism when it comes to actual policy. I’m not saying we need to be resigned to keeping underclasses down, of course. We just need to make sure that any solutions we pitch do not get wrecked on the reefs of sudden changing norms. We need to make sure we’re not making plans to blend two demographics that are not ours while maintaining our own demographic in comfortable isolation. Basically, if you want to make sure that the poorest Americans have access to a college diploma, are you endorsing this policy while knowing full well that your own degree is too advanced, or competitive, to be watered down by outsiders? If so, it may not work; not because your heart is not in the right place but because the incentives of most of the people involved will not match your own.
Just as an example of how badly we misinterpret the Sneetches when we apply them to the real world, have a look at this editorial cartoon. Here, Sneetches literally labeled “no labels” crow their superiority over both kinds of Sneetch. It’s supposed to be about Congress, but it looks like everyday people if you ask me. If you can imagine someone saying, “You think you’re better than someone else, therefore I think I am better than you”—well, you’re imagining our future.
(The actual Sneetches story ends hopefully; let us not despair.)